“The Feminist Utopia Project”: Figuring Out the Futures We Want to Build

2015.11.23.Macare.cover(Image: The Feminist Press)What might a feminist society look like? In The Feminist Utopia Project, contributors including Janet Mock, Victoria Law and Melissa Harris-Perry imagine exciting possible alternatives and futures. This remarkable anthology addresses what work, sex, birth control, parenting, the US Constitution, mental health care, the food industry, and dozens of other aspects of our lives might look like in a better world. Order the book today by making a donation to Truthout!

The 57 pieces that comprise The Feminist Utopia Project range from poetry to highly specific policy proposals, and from design and illustration pieces to short speculative stories that could fit equally well in another of the year’s best anthologies, Octavia’s Brood. There are also interviews with a wide range of feminist thinkers including trans rights activist and Stonewall veteran Miss Major, adult performer and writer Sovereign Syre, Black Girl Dangerous creator Mia McKenzie, sports writer Jessica Luther, and preteen rock band Harsh Crowd.

“There’s value in imagining utopias precisely because we’re far from it.” – Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

Since the plurality of visions contained within The Feminist Utopia Project is one of its greatest strengths, Truthout spoke to not just the book’s editors, Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, but also a small handful of the book’s many contributors: Katherine Cross, Verónica Bayetti Flores, Melissa Gira Grant, Mariame Kaba, Victoria Law and s.e. smith.

Joe Macaré: What is the value of imagining a feminist utopia at all when in many ways we’re so far from it?

Rachel Kauder Nalebuff (coeditor): There’s value in imagining utopias precisely because we’re far from it. We need day-to-day activism and work that responds to misogyny on the ground, but it’s also important to set our eyes on the horizon to remember and constantly reconsider what we’re working towards. I think we’ve also found, from working on this project, that utopian thinking is a political tool that’s exciting and accessible to all sorts of people. So it’s been a wonderful way to cross-pollinate creative ideas about feminism amongst activists, artists, writers, sci-fi nerds, doctors, teen musicians, and the list goes on!

The visions of utopia outlined in the book, as noted in the introduction, are often different and even conflicting – different formulations of government, different justice systems, different degrees to which anything resembling capitalism still exist. Why do you think it’s important to present and consider such a broad range of utopias?

Alexandra Brodsky (coeditor): People are different from each other, and people want different things. The wide range of ways people are hurt by misogyny today guarantee that our dreams will vary, too, in response to those harms. To figure out the worlds that we, in our intertwined movements, want to build, we need to grapple head-on with the tensions between our visions.

Is there any definition of utopia you, the editors, just wouldn’t allow in the book?

Brodsky: We struggled with this question. Sometimes it’s hard to establish a clear line between ideas that spur helpful intra-movement discussion and debate, and ideas that undermine our attempts to more clearly understand and realize gender justice. There are pieces in the book I very much disagree with, but those still outline a possible path toward liberation and are often particularly exciting because they challenge me.

Nalebuff: I think the most unanimous answer to this question, looking at the pieces in the book, was the idea that physical violence has no place in the utopian landscape. That being said, contributions vary on what kind of work it would take to maintain that state. We’d still need education surrounding issues of assault; we’d still need systems in place to respond to violence if they ever occurred.

“To figure out the worlds that we want to build, we need to grapple head-on with the tensions between our visions.” – Alexandra Brodsky

On a slightly related note, we love the way Melissa Harris-Perry talks, in her piece, about the importance of struggle in a utopia. Our characters are built on struggle, she argues. So in her utopia (and I think in mine, too), we’d all still come across obstacles in our lives. These are part of what make life dynamic. But the kinds of struggles would be different. No one, she argues, would ever struggle because of the color of their skin or their gender. We’d struggle because of the elements, because of our personalities, because of broken hearts, because of the unpredictable nature of life. But not because of the bodies we were born into.

Why did you choose the particular interpretation of or angle on “utopia” that forms the focus of your piece in the book?

Katherine Cross (author, “Feminist Constitution”): I had come off of a year of reporting on some major Supreme Court decisions and explaining their implications and assumptions to my readers at Feministing and RH Reality Check, so it’s where my mind was. But I also retain no small amount of faith that we can perfect constitutional democracy and that feminism has an enormous contribution to make to that generation-spanning project.

Verónica Bayetti Flores (author, “Embroidering Revolution”): I wanted to imagine what domesticity and domestic arts would be like in a utopia. Domestic work has historically been and continues to be considered inferior, frivolous or inconsequential – whether we are talking about the labor to keep a home running as deserving of little or no pay, to the ways that domestic creative endeavors are rarely seen as legitimate artistic practices. It’s not a coincidence that domestic creative pursuits are devalued; it’s because of their proximity to femininity. This is racialized of course, with domestic work done by women of color valued even less. When traditionally domestic creativity is celebrated as art, it’s most often when it shifts to being done primarily by men, and for profit – that is, when they shift outside of the domestic realm.

“I retain no small amount of faith that we can perfect constitutional democracy.” – Katherine Cross

It’s also personal. I used to feel like my feminist self and my creative self needed to have a degree of separation because my interests were so often associated with domesticity – working with textiles, making my living space beautiful, cooking and doing the ongoing planning of using every bit of food most effectively and in the most thrifty and flavorful ways. I have creative interests outside of those, but once I realized how misogynist it was that I was seeing my feminism as in opposition to these, I made a conscious switch to exploring these more. It still feels weird to call myself an artist but I’m claiming it! Right now, I’m working on an ongoing series of embroideries around migration and diaspora in my family.

Mariame Kaba (author, “Justice”): I chose to imagine a world without prisons because it’s a central focus of my organizing. I am actively working toward abolition, which means that I am trying to create the conditions necessary to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons. It was wonderful for me to have a chance to write about a place and time where we’d already succeeded in ending prisons.

Victoria Law (author, “What Would a Feminist Utopia Look Like for Parents of Color?”): As a parent, I tried to envision the type of world – and community support – that I wish had existed for me and my child. While some of the examples are based on real-life support that we did have (like a houseful of punks taking us in when my apartment had toxic mold behind the walls), others remain wishful thinking.

s.e. smith (author, “An Unremarkable Bar on an Unremarkable Night”): I’ve always been deeply involved in disability activism, and at the time the call for submissions was published, I was still a feminist, and believed that feminism’s disability problem could be addressed through broader outreach on the subject of disability. For me, selecting a vision of an accessible world was a natural choice given that I knew relatively few submissions would address the subject – many disabled feminists were tired of being told to wait their turn and would be unlikely to feel comfortable submitting to an explicitly feminist anthology, and most nondisabled feminists didn’t want to think about disability. I wanted to illustrate that equal and open access to society and universal design should be core feminist values.

Melissa Gira Grant (author, “Working Utopia”): I’m a feminist and feminism is the first politics I discovered. I don’t know how I feel about utopianism. So I wrote something to consider my ambivalence.

What are the non-negotiables of your feminist utopia – the things that absolutely need to be present before it can be called a utopia, even an imperfect one?

Law: The eradication of racism, for one! Not only the overt racism, but also the reluctance to recognize color that I’ve heard from white parents raising white children. I don’t want parents to pretend that different races – and racial heritages – don’t exist; I want us to celebrate our rich histories, cultures and traditions while tearing down the walls of racism.

Cross: Full bodily autonomy. I am convinced that this is the bedrock on which all other freedoms are built; women, cis and trans, white and of color, and queer people of all genders suffer from differing regimes of bodily policing. This is the cancerous heart of oppression: the state and society providing strict sanctions on what we do with our bodies, from getting an abortion, to having children at all, to using contraception, to changing your gender, the police violently controlling the lives and movement of sex workers and Black people … the list goes on, and it all redounds to the as-yet-unrealized right to do as we will with our own bodies.

Kaba: In my utopia, we’ve done away with the gender binary and racism. There is no such thing as private property and everyone’s basic needs are met. This frees the people in my story to consider new ways of relating to each other, ways that do not rely on coercion, containment and captivity.

Flores: Labor associated with femininity would be valued for its contributions to society. This means domestic work, yes, but also other undervalued labor like sex work or caretaking work. These fields are not exclusive to women, but their gendered associations play a large role in the ways they’re perceived, valued and legislated. In my utopia, labor would be separated from survival. Maybe that’s through a universal basic income or through some other system, but the connection of those two plays out in racist, ableist and patriarchal ways. Survival should not be conditional.

“Utopia isn’t about eliding difference but actively celebrating it. Core to that is universal access.” – s.e. smith

Prisons and the police would be abolished in favor of community-based and restorative systems of accountability. There would be truly universal health-care access (including abortion and the full spectrum of reproductive health care). In this utopia, medicine will have put behind its commitment to a type of normative body (e.g. thin, able-bodied, conforming to binary gender) and focus on people being well in the bodies that they’re in. The white supremacist, capitalist, ableist patriarchy would be dismantled.

smith: Radical intersectional inclusion and the acknowledgement that any utopia includes people from a range of backgrounds and life experiences. Whether that’s disabled and pregnant Asian women or mentally ill veterans or Black transgender women, utopia isn’t about eliding difference but actively celebrating it. Core to that is universal access, not just in a physical disability sense, but in a more widespread emotional one. The barriers to full participation in society, whether they be disableism, racism, classism, transphobia or other discriminatory practices, must be eliminated.

Grant: My feminist utopia isn’t one. It’s purposefully imaginary, which is important.

In what ways are we currently coming closer to utopia and in what ways is our ability to imagine utopia still deeply limited?

smith: There’s a growing understanding of the fact that we can’t legislate our way into utopia, though laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964 are critically important. There’s also a growing understanding of the limitations of the US-based individualized, bootstrapping model for social equality, and the realization that we must take on social justice issues as institutional, structural social problems rather than individual issues to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Yet, our ability to visualize and create a utopian framework is still deeply limited by dominant modes of thinking, particularly those that marginalize classes of people deemed less important, casting them by the wayside with promises that their time will come – even if they’ve been working just as hard and just as long for equality, sometimes actively against all odds, as in the case of Black women who fought for the vote even when suffragettes were using racist rhetoric to argue for the right to vote, or disabled women like Helen Keller who advanced radical socialism and full social rights for women while knowing that women like them were usually relegated to institutions and locked away from society. Society still believes that some lives matter more than others, whether consciously or subconsciously, and that remains a consistent barrier to social equality.

Brodsky: The greatest limitation to our ability to imagine utopias is also the reason it’s so important: The reality of today can start to restrict what we want for tomorrow. As we write in the introduction, sexism comes to feel so inevitable that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Much of our work as editors was to push writers to consider whether parts of the world they took as givens are, in fact, malleable.

“Imagining a society that doesn’t rely on force or that doesn’t lock people away for various transgressions is difficult.” – Mariame Kaba

But feminists are wildly creative, and I do think we’re moving closer and challenging the problems we’re told are inevitable. One example would be the Be Bold, End Hyde organizing to push for government funding for abortion care. Right now, we’re so busy fighting off dangerous restrictions on abortion access in states across the country that it’s hard to remember that we deserve so much more than even where we found ourselves pre-backlash. Abortion shouldn’t just be legal; it should be accessible. And the activists working to end the Hyde Amendment, which restricts government funding for abortion care, remind us of that while fighting for real, urgent change. They’re refusing the terms of the debate and setting their own. They’re refusing to let the backlash diminish their ambition.

Cross: We’re in the midst of a renaissance of speculative fiction being generated by marginalized people. Whether it’s sci-fi novels or videogames, the creative energies of a whole new generation of Black and Brown, queer and trans writers are being unleashed. Women are telling more of our own stories, and trans women specifically are having our own flowering of literature by and for us. This blossoming of imaginations is what I and other feminist scholars have called a “laboratory of dreams,” a realm for the historically marginalized to experiment with new conceptions of society.

I will say, however, that the complex way in which this artwork is doing so demonstrates the limitation of utopian thinking. Many of these works explore ambiguous worlds; they tinker and toy with social norms, producing realms well short of perfection. But their imperfections make them human, reflections of the humanity that prejudice has denied to so many of us; we are free to be awkwardly, brokenly human, still striving. Such imperfections reveal what I think is a timeless truth: Utopia is a horizon that can never be reached but – and this is the crucial part – the act of chasing that horizon is the closest thing we have to a secular sacrament; it must never be abandoned.

Flores: We’re in a moment of huge social and political upheaval, in which I see so much of the work I and so many other women of color have been doing for so many years paying off in a big way. In so many ways, we are doing the work to inch closer to a better world, and people are becoming aware of their power when they come together. At the same time, racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia still infect our movements, and we are perpetuating similar dynamics even in our work for social justice; we’ve lived our whole lives under these ideologies, and we internalize them more deeply than we know sometimes.

I also think we have a really hard time imagining a world outside of some of the most ingrained yet harmful systems in our societies: capitalism, the police, prisons. These systems are ingrained in almost everything we do, and we definitely need to work on the ways we are able to think and propose solutions for our communities outside of them.

Law: As I mentioned earlier, some of the examples in my piece are based on real-life experiences and support. At the same time, this kind of support is still an exception rather than the norm. We’re still seeing a mindset that people who choose to have children shouldn’t expect community support, and it’s that mindset that supports the popularity of political attacks on supports like welfare, paid family leave, universal health care etc.

Kaba: It’s become easier for people to imagine a world without prisons than without police. In my story, neither exists. As human beings, I think that people are conditioned to be fearful of one another. We are convinced that we are surrounded by sociopaths and need to be protected from the “other.” So imagining a society that doesn’t rely on force or that doesn’t lock people away for various transgressions is difficult. While abolishing prisons is not something that will be accomplished easily, we do have a growing community-accountability movement we can build on. There is no blueprint for abolition; we must spend time imagining, strategizing and practicing other futures. There are more people than ever who are willing to engage in this.

Grant: So long as our utopias are premised on what no longer exists, they’ll exclude us, and any possibility of coming any nearer to existing. Which is maybe fine. I’d rather live in imperfection.